This article discusses the Australian Women's Broadcasting Co-operative (AWBC), formed by women working at the Australian Broadcasting Commission in response to the United Nations' declaration that 1975 would be International Women's Year. It examines the AWBC's attempts to challenge entrenched structural inequalities and sexual discrimination, improve opportunities for women in the organization, and change dominant representations of women's lives in the media. It analyzes the significance of the AWBC's key interventions, including the production of a national weekly radio show for women, The Coming Out Show; the provision of production training for women; pushing for a formal inquiry into the status of women; lobbying for staff childcare facilities; and representing women employees in industrial relations matters. The article concludes with a discussion of the long-term impact of the AWBC and the Coming Out Show, which, despite its genesis as a “bold experiment,” endured for twenty-three years.
This article analyzes the sexual division of labor at Australia's public service broadcaster, the Australian Broadcasting Commission/Corporation (ABC), in the 1970s and 1980s, and the unique steps taken by some of the organization's women employees to address entrenched structural inequalities and sexual discrimination.1 Mobilized by the United Nations' declaration that 1975 would be International Women's Year, female employees at the ABC formed the Australian Women's Broadcasting Co-operative (AWBC) with the aim of achieving gender equality in the organization, particularly in radio and television production. In 1976, ABC management accepted the AWBC's proposal to form a Task Force on Equal Opportunity for Women (TaFEO). The resultant report, Women in the ABC (1977), along with subsequent reports by the independent Committee of Review of the ABC (1981) and the ABC's equal opportunity officer (1982), demonstrated that a legacy of discriminatory attitudes and practices within the ABC had resulted in entrenched occupation segregation, and unequal treatment of women and men in recruitment, employment, and promotional practices.2
The relationship between the broader feminist movement and the Australian media has only recently been the subject of scholarly exploration.3 In her transnational study of three professional women journalists, Diane Kirkby argues that the media, particularly newspapers, have played an important role in enabling women activists to “find their public voice” and as a tool for education and mobilization on issues of concern to women.4 Margaret Henderson has examined the construction of narratives about the history of Australian feminism in print journalism, television, radio, and film.5 More recently, feminist media historians have illuminated the crucial role played by Australian women radio broadcasters in providing a public space for women to engage with public debates, including feminist and peace activism.6
Vicky Ball and Melanie Bell have drawn attention to the lack of research on women's production histories, a situation partly remedied by their coedited special issue of the Journal of British Cinema and Television on the role of women within British film and television production.7 Academic research on the lived experiences of Australian women media workers is scarce, however, particularly for the pre-digital era.8 Previous research on this subject has mainly focused on women's work in the print media and film industries.9 Carolyn Byerly argues that in-depth studies of women's occupational status in the media must also consider the broader framework of men's economic and professional power in media industries. This article responds to Byerly's call for more research into women's struggles to change mainstream media companies or media content, and on the impact of feminism on the relationship between women and the media.10 It examines the successful grassroots action instigated by a group of feminist activists within the ABC to challenge sexual discrimination, improve opportunities for women in the organization, and change the representation of women's lives in the media.
Previous research on the AWBC has focused mainly on the long-running radio program it generated, The Coming Out Show.11 The other actions undertaken by the AWBC to end gender discrimination at the ABC have not yet been treated to sustained analysis. This article discusses the significance of these key interventions, which included the provision of production training for women; pushing for a formal enquiry into the status of women, and the employment of an equal opportunity officer; lobbying for staff childcare facilities; and representing the ABC's women employees in industrial relations matters. It draws from a variety of primary source material, including oral history interviews with former ABC women and AWBC reports and correspondence held at the ABC's Document Archives. While much of women's labor in broadcasting has been invisible, usually leaving few archival traces, this research on the AWBC was made possible because of the thorough record keeping and archiving policies of the ABC, a national public institution that holds archival records in-house and at the national repository for government records, the National Archives of Australia.12 This article first discusses the political and institutional environment in which the AWBC was founded, and the group's aims, structure, and operation, within the context of other actions to address the role of women in the Australian and international media. It then analyzes the AWBC's key interventions, including attempts to challenge the sexual division of labor in relation to two areas in particular, the “female” job of producer's assistant, and technical positions, which were largely confined to men. The article concludes with an analysis of the long-term impact of the AWBC and The Coming Out Show.
OCCUPATIONAL SEGREGATION AT THE ABC
Until the 1970s Australia's dual broadcasting system consisted of a government-funded public service broadcaster, the ABC (established in 1932), and a commercial sector funded mainly by advertising. Nonprofit community broadcasting emerged as a third sector in the 1970s. At the ABC in the mid-1970s, women represented just 28 percent of all employees (numbering about six thousand)—considerably less than the proportion in the total Australian workforce (35 percent). In New South Wales, 31 percent of the staff was female, but in what the ABC termed the “BAPH states” of Queensland, South Australia, Western Australia, and Tasmania, the proportion of women staff dropped considerably, to as low as 21 percent in Tasmania.13 This gender imbalance was replicated in other media organizations around the world. A study of the position of women in the mass media industries published by UNESCO in 1981 stated that the proportion of women employed in film, broadcasting, or mainstream press organizations “rarely exceeds 30 per cent in any country.”14 At the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), for example, 25 percent of jobs were held by women in 1975, and at the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), 36 percent of staff in 1978 were women.15
The ABC's workforce was divided strictly along gender lines, whereby male and female staff were automatically streamed into specific job categories. At ABC television in 1975, for example, there were no female newsreaders, staging assistants, sound recordists, or camera operators.16 There were two female editors (among forty male editors), four female floor managers (versus thirty males), and four female technical operators. There were no men working in the “female” position of producer's assistant, a position I will discuss at greater length below.17 Women made up just 10.5 percent of the radio and television news reporting staff.
The ABC was not the only workplace in the Australian Public Service (APS, the Australian civil service) where women employees were relegated to routinized, low-paid work, with little opportunity to advance to higher grades. Desley Deacon has demonstrated that a “dual labor market” operated within the entire APS from its establishment in 1901, with women confined to the secondary, or lesser, labor market, and men given exclusive access to the primary market, with superior conditions and upward mobility. Women's occupations in the public service had two features in common: they were subordinate positions rather than positions of authority, and they offered little chance of promotion, and no movement into decision-making roles. This segregation of women created “two separate work cultures” and a “spiral of disadvantage for women” in the public service.18 An unnamed ABC state manager acknowledged in 1975:
If we are to be objective we will have to admit that there are some areas where women are not yet making their mark in the ABC. For example, there are no managers or regional managers and there are no women staff who at this stage look like filling these positions. Nowhere in the administrative structure am I aware of women on senior levels. The production and programme areas also have significant gaps where women cannot be found in higher positions, and they are employed on only the lowest levels of the engineering division. … Women are still found exclusively in secretarial, junior clerical and typing positions or as receptionists, tea-ladies, make-up assistants and producer's assistants.19
This situation was replicated in other media organizations worldwide. Even in countries such as Norway, where women occupied substantially more than 30 percent of media jobs in the same period, women were generally clustered “at the lower levels of particular job categories, or else hived off into areas which were overwhelmingly ‘female.’” In addition, “vertical segregation” meant that only a small percentage of women held key policy-making positions in media organizations.20 Margaret Gallagher also writes about “horizontal segregation” in the media, whereby women employees are relegated to certain areas, such as educational, arts, and children's programs, while men are more likely to be employed in news and current affairs, business and economics, and sports. One effect of women's concentration in lower-status areas, argues Gallagher, is that promotion or movement to higher-status or higher-paid roles is more difficult.21
THE AUSTRALIAN WOMEN'S BROADCASTING CO-OPERATIVE
Tackling the ABC's entrenched structural inequalities was a key aim of the AWBC, formed in December 1974 by women working in ABC radio.22 The impetus was management's call for staff proposals on how best to demonstrate support for the aims of the United Nations' International Women's Year (IWY) in 1975. ABC management's “tentative” suggestions for marking IWY included giving over the radio for one day to female announcers and program makers, and broadcasting a concert of music by female composers.23 The women of the hastily formed AWBC presented management with a more ambitious proposal:
You will note that the third aim of IWY is “the removal of discrimination against women.” We believe the only way to make anything other than a token gesture towards this aim in programming terms is to establish a special unit—the Australian Women's Broadcasting Unit—which will take responsibility for providing a regular programme output during International Women's Year and at the same time seek out and foster the talents of the many women in the ABC who have programme making potential but at present are denied opportunities within the ABC for developing this potential.24
The influence of the Australian Women's Liberation Movement on the foundation and operation of the AWBC is undeniable.25 Robin Hughes, then in the Science unit in ABC radio, was one of the four signatories to the initial proposal in December 1974, along with three other radio women: Julie Rigg (Science), Gillian Waite (Entertainment), and Liz Fell (Special Projects). Hughes insisted that the only way to ensure success was to target a regular slot in the radio schedule, which would embed them into the structure of the ABC and make ongoing funding more likely:
What I think was distinctive, really distinctive, about second wave [feminism] was that we understood that it wasn't just attitudinal change. That we understood that we had to get the structural change happening, that we had to get the laws changed, we had to get the rules changed. And certainly my approach to the AWBC was to say, “The only way in the current system we'll get funding to support women is to get hold of a piece of the schedule. And that will get funded. You won't get funded for anything else except providing a program.” And if we could do that, then we had a base to operate from.26
AWBC members were motivated by the successful actions waged by other groups formed to fight for better working conditions and media representation for women. Fell, Rigg, and Hughes had been active in the Media Women's Action Group, formed in Sydney in 1971 by women in the mainstream media, which battled the Sydney Journalists' Club to allow women as full members and campaigned for better working conditions, childcare, and parental leave for media workers.27 “It was really hard nuts-and-bolts stuff we were after,” recalled Hughes.28 The AWBC's formation as a collective, and its concern with workplace equality, befits its emergence from the Women's Liberation Movement, which, as Marilyn Lake writes, “was both collectivist and individualist, celebrating the power of sisterhood, but refusing hierarchies and traditional organisational structures.”29 As part of a broader focus on cultural production and engagement, the movement also gave birth to several feminist presses and journals, often run collectively, which involved the sharing of skills and an emphasis on process rather than output.30 In common with these feminist presses, AWBC took the means of production into its own hands, and viewed community building as a vital aspect of its function.31
The AWBC was also formed in the context of actions and reports initiated by a number of international nongovernmental organizations, including the United Nations and UNESCO, to document and challenge discrimination and sexism experienced by women working in the media. The “World Plan of Action” adopted by the World Conference of IWY emphasized the goal of employing more women in “decision-making, professional and creative capacities within media organizations.”32 At “The Professional Participation of Women in the Media” conference in Sydney in May 1976 (organized by the National Commission for UNESCO), Jerzy Toeplitz, director of the Australian Film and Television School, reminded delegates that UNESCO believed that improving the participation of women in the media was an important step in achieving the crucial aim of “preparing women not only for equality but for leadership.”33 The AWBC, however, was unique in comparison with other international efforts focused on reforming women's status in the media. Rather than accepting the ideological and political assumptions built into the institution's systems, the AWBC aimed to bring about radical change from within, through building a strong organizational base to challenge established structures.34 It is also significant that both Fell and Waite were employed in Radio Special Projects, headed by Allan Ashbolt, a “genuinely democratic broadcaster” who oversaw the creation of equally pioneering ABC radio programs Lateline (1972–76) and Background Briefing (1980–).35
With the crucial support of Keith Mackriell, the ABC's assistant general manager for radio, the AWBC was formally established in early 1975 as a special unit, known as the Women's Unit, within the Department of Talks and Documentaries, with three full-time staff. The weekly hour-long radio program was initially called The Coming Out Ready or Not Show. The name was suggested by Rigg, who recalled: “For the women's movement, if you waited around until women were ready, you'd never make change. Women were always being told they weren't ready. So we called it The Coming Out Ready or Not Show.”36 By 1980 the program was known simply as The Coming Out Show. It aired on Saturdays at five o'clock in the afternoon, a timeslot convenient for both working and non-working women, as well as men, and, fittingly, the first broadcast was on International Women's Day, March 8, 1975.
Just one of the groundbreaking aspects of the AWBC was that it gave women editorial control over program making.37 Ideas for programs were generated by a range of women in the ABC with varying levels of broadcasting experience, and produced with the help of more experienced women. According to the AWBC, up to seventy different women per year, many of them without any previous training, contributed to The Coming Out Show.38 By 1978 segments were being produced by freelancers as well as by ABC employees.39 The program covered a broad range of topics, including education, history, music, work, international issues, health, sexuality, literature, the arts, and parenting. Challenging issues were discussed, including adoption, abortion law reform, surrogate pregnancy and IVF, rape, domestic violence, and women in prison, at a time when women's issues were still considered “soft issues” and were unlikely to air on the main ABC current affairs programs.40 Although aimed at women, a significant proportion of the program's listeners were male.41 The “radical voices” on the early programs foregrounded diversity, in strong contrast to the “white, middle-class” organization's usual programming.42 A strong theme in the program's first year was “the gender segregation of the Australian workforce,” as broadcaster Nicola Joseph recalled. Listeners “heard about women's struggles in factories, in sweat-shops and at the grass roots level of the union hierarchy.”43 The Women's Unit was also the first production unit to eschew the use of separate, trained announcers in favor of a “producer-presenter model,” which meant that listeners heard “interviewers and presenters who were typists and clerks, as well as experienced journalists and producers.”44 Allowing untrained voices on air caused consternation within the broadcaster, says Rigg, but “we managed to have a collective identity, and a very well-known brand, without announcing staff.” This gave the production team more independence and visibility, and made it more difficult for management to “control” them.45
The AWBC was unusual within the ABC for a number of reasons. The three full-time positions (coordinator, program officer, and production officer) were all temporary, with appointments refreshed approximately every twelve months. “That structure was the secret that made it work and gave it strength, because the number of women just grew. It was like compound interest,” said Jo Upham, who was appointed AWBC program officer in 1980. The program officer and production officer roles were considered training positions, and the expectation was that any woman with appropriate training could be appointed as the coordinator. Upham believes that the training aspect “made it a more collaborative environment, a more supportive, nurturing environment.”46 The coordinator was accountable both to the director of Radio Talks and Documentaries as well as to the AWBC, which made collective decisions about program content. The group's democratic style was often at odds with the bureaucratic procedures and hierarchical structures of the institution in which it resided.47 Rigg recalled that one of the “constant issues” was how to integrate the AWBC's horizontal, voluntary structure “with a vertical command structure.”48 In the same period, the “femocrats”—feminists appointed to women's policy positions in the Australian state and federal governments—were similarly attempting to resolve the contradictory approaches of the movement they represented and the bureaucracy that employed them.49 Within a large public institution in which women remained a significant minority until well into the 1990s, the AWBC also became a crucial source of support and identity for women working at the ABC.50
In the first year, the three staff not only coordinated the production of the radio program (from ideas generated from AWBC members), but organized training workshops for ABC women. Most women employees had been previously prevented from attending courses at the ABC Training School because of a screening mechanism known as “training for potential,” which was aimed at ensuring that the course was linked “to the job [attendees] presently occupy and/or possible future positions.”51 This practice effectively locked women out of training, and reduced their chance of a career path in production. Robin Hughes was attracted to training because of its potential to develop not only women's skills, but “their confidence and their determination to claim what it was reasonable for them to claim.”52
In the AWBC's first year, more than two hundred women attended workshops to learn basic radio, television, and film production skills, editing, and scriptwriting.53 Through arming women with program-making skills, the AWBC hoped to be able to “redirect talent into areas at present not easily accessible to women” and achieve its goal of creating equal opportunity for women in the ABC.54 Most women attending the early AWBC workshops were employed in clerical, typing, and support roles, although many had previously attempted to “fit themselves for a job in radio” by attending courses offered by outside organizations such as the Workers' Education Association.55 A significant proportion of the fifty-four women who applied for the AWBC's first TV studio workshop in March 1975 expressed their desire to learn skills that would enable them to work in technical positions—areas that women were effectively barred from entering. In answer to the question, “What areas of TV production would you like the course to cover?” most applicants specified camera operating, vision mixing, film editing, and lighting.56 Reporting on the first film workshop in 1975, the organizer, Diana Gruner, wrote that the AWBC was determined “to prove to the Commission and ourselves that women are capable of working in a field that is male-dominated.”57 Resources were concentrated in Sydney, meaning that women in other states found it more difficult to get the production training they wanted. In 1981, the AWBC informed the ABC's head of training that colleagues in Adelaide were “still desperate for training,” which they had been requesting since 1976. The AWBC in Melbourne in 1981 advised that their members specifically requested training in technical skills: “a full time opportunity intensive workshop to learn and practise such things as cut and dub editing, script writing, research approaches and experience in production and program assembly.”58
THE TASK FORCE ON EQUAL OPPORTUNITY FOR WOMEN
Soon after its establishment, the AWBC began compiling “a file of cases of discrimination against women in the ABC.”59 After its first year, the AWBC realized that the provision of training alone would not be enough to dismantle the barriers to equal opportunity, and it pushed for a formal inquiry into the status and role of women in the ABC. The AWBC was influenced by similar reports produced on the status of women within the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) in the United States, and by the findings of the inquiry into the Australian Public Service.60 In September 1975, Kate Miller, an AWBC coordinator in Sydney, was elected as the AWBC representative to attend the Asian Broadcasting Union Seminar in Bangkok. Another delegate was the CBC's Kay McIver, chair of the Report of the CBC Task Force on the Status of Women and director of radio. The AWBC saw this as a “great opportunity for our representative to discuss in depth the CBC's study and how implementation of the recommendations made is progressing,” and suggested that members form a support group “to study the CBC report and to consider how useful such an enquiry into the ABC might be.”61 It is important to note that the CBC task force was also initiated by women from within the organization, who worked together “to put pressure on management” to implement the recommendations of the Royal Commission into the Status of Women.62
The AWBC's initial proposal for a task force inquiry was not supported by all state managers. A revised proposal outlining the case for an inquiry and suggesting terms of reference was presented in November 1975.63 After “months of negotiation and lobbying,” the commission finally agreed in July 1976 to establish the Task Force on Equal Opportunity (TaFEO).64 The AWBC's crucial ally in this battle was the ABC's sole female commissioner, Concetta (Connie) Benn, an associate director of the Brotherhood of St. Laurence social research center. Writing to all department and section heads to request their cooperation, the ABC's general manager, Talbot Duckmanton, appeared to recognize that the institution could not continue to resist change in the face of similar initiatives across the public sector, including the establishment of the Office of Women's Affairs in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, an equal opportunity section in the APS board, and women's committees in numerous federal government departments.65 In addition, the 1976 Royal Commission into Australian Government Administration (known as the Coombs Commission after the commissioner, H. C. Coombs) had reported that “women, Aborigines, migrants, the handicapped, homosexuals, older people seeking late entry to the Service, the educationally deprived … all suffer from disadvantage in seeking employment or promotion in the service of the Commonwealth Government.”66
Three women were elected by the AWBC to work full time on the inquiry, including broadcaster and former sociologist Liz Fell, together with one full-time member nominated by management and three part-time members from senior management. TaFEO was tasked not only with conducting an inquiry and preparing a report; through making personal contact with ABC staff, TaFEO hoped to “stimulate attitudinal change; in other words, the process was to be just as important as the outcome.”67 All divisions aside from management (Management Services, Engineering, Programs, News) nominated or elected coordinators to assist the work of the task force, and in each state, women selected committees. Liz Fell recalled that TaFEO “took the AWBC's struggle out of the program areas and into the nooks and crannies of administration, where women were shunted into typing pools and tied to their desks at the lowest levels of the clerical structure. To reach these women, we had to allay the anxieties of their male bosses who, with a few exceptions, were overwhelmingly hostile to the inquiry.”68
In addition to employment statistics (which took six months to gather, and were inadequate) TaFEO relied on a range of methods to gauge “experiences and attitudes,” including individual and group interviews, written submissions, analysis of official documentation, and surveys. The report of the TaFEO inquiry, Women at the ABC, substantially written by Fell, found that men dominated higher-grade, higher-paid, decision-making positions. Women were overwhelmingly clustered in lower-status and lower-paid production and administrative support positions, and “almost invisible in key programme positions.”69 The report analyzed the occupancy by gender of forty-six main job titles (those positions that were occupied by at least thirty staff), covering 95 percent of all ABC employees. It then divided the jobs into “women's” jobs (those occupied by at least 90 percent women), “men's” jobs (those occupied by at least 90 percent men), and “mixed” jobs. The analysis confirmed the strict sexual division of labor at the ABC, with three-quarters of main ABC jobs occupied by more than 90 percent of either sex. Fifty percent of female employees were channeled into just four main jobs: typist, clerk/typist, producer's assistant, and news operations assistant. Within each job category, women were clustered in lower grades, even in those jobs categorized as “women's” jobs, such as wardrobe, where men were predominantly coordinators and women were usually assistants or cutters. Out of ninety-nine senior officers, just three were women, in Audience Research, Education, and Legal Services.70
Comparative information about the position of women in the Australian commercial broadcasting and film sectors in the same period is scant, although it is safe to assume that gender imbalances existed across the Australian media industries, as was the case internationally. At the 1976 “Professional Participation of Women in the Media” conference in Sydney, Jim Malone, the federal director of the Federation of Television Stations, admitted that “it is certainly true that most women in television occupy the traditional positions of clerks, typists, secretaries, researchers and so forth.”71 Margaret Bradley, a producer at Channel 9 television in Sydney, referred to women in television as “galley-slaves” to describe their confinement to certain types of necessary but low-status work.72 Tim Read, head of production at Film Australia (an independent commission wholly owned by the federal government), stated that of 158 employees, just twenty-one (13.3 percent) were women. Among full-time employees there was just one female producer (and seven men) and one female acting director (versus fifteen men), although the proportion of women was slightly higher among freelance workers.73
The ABC's commission decided not to publish the TaFEO report, Women in the ABC, and it was not made widely available within the organization, leading Connie Benn to remark: “I think the ABC is ashamed to release it publicly because of what it reveals about the way the ABC treats its women employees.”74 Not publishing the report was “disgraceful,” says Rigg, and made the AWBC members “bloody furious.”75 While ABC management had endorsed most of the TaFEO recommendations in 1978 and appointed a task force coordinator to oversee their implementation, the consultants who prepared the volume on industrial relations for the Committee of Review of the ABC noted in 1981 that “the rate and scope of implementation of many of the recommendations has been a disappointment” and that progress toward equal employment opportunity had been slow.76 Believing that ABC management was not committed to internal reform, by the early 1980s the AWBC instead favored antidiscrimination legislation as a way to achieve equality.77
WOMEN IN TECHNICAL AREAS
One area that the AWBC targeted was the dearth of women in technical areas. When Patricia Lawson was employed as an acting technical operator in 1969, the ABC staff journal Radio Active noted that it was “an unusual job for a girl.” Lawson, who had previously worked at NZBC in New Zealand, assured the reporter that “there are lots of female radio operators in New Zealand.”78 At the ABC in Sydney in 1975, all three female technical operators were overseas trained—an indication of the lack of local training opportunities for women technicians.79 Following the 1972 Arbitration Commission's decision, which legislated “equal pay for work of an equal nature,” the ABC investigated whether the ruling would apply to female technical operators (known internally as “tech ops”). The (male) working party who looked into the matter “worried that women couldn't lift equipment even though physical capacity was not a job requirement,” recalled former AWBC coordinator Nicola Joseph.80 Women made very few inroads into technical areas throughout the 1970s. According to the Women in the ABC report, 95 percent of technical staff in 1977 were male, and most of the women in the Engineering division were in typing or clerical positions.81 The one “technical” area of television that was female-dominated was the low-status and low-paid support position of videotape operator. In 1979, AWBC production officer Miranda Sherriff conducted a study on women in technical operations, and found that 97 percent of technical operators (including trainees) were male; in four states there were no female operators at all.82 “Discrimination by sex-role stereotyping in past recruitment practices,” said the 1982 Equal Employment Opportunity Report, had probably led to men being “automatically favoured” for all trade positions (jobs that usually required manual skills, such as set building) and technical positions.83
One ABC technical position that was closed to women until the 1980s was camera. In 1977 the cine-camera (film camera) position was occupied solely by men.84 The ABC was not alone in this regard. Sydney's Channel 7, for example, hired their first female camera assistant, Jenny Semple, in 1979.85 According to TaFEO, women who applied to the ABC camera department were routinely refused an interview, and camera assistant jobs were normally listed in the “Men and Boys” section of the classified advertisements, indicating the broadcaster's gender preference for camera positions.86 While interviewing supervisors in the camera department, the task force team heard a number of gendered assumptions being expressed, including that cine-camera work was too rough, dirty, or dangerous for women, that “women aren't interested in camera work,” and that “women can't carry heavy equipment.”87 This is despite the fact that a small number of women had been working as news camera “stringers” since at least 1958—a job that involved working alone, carrying one's own camera equipment, and covering disasters such as bush fires and airplane crashes.88 The work of female news stringers, however, was not generally well known outside the small circle of people who communicated with them. The career paths of the few women who succeeded in male-dominated areas were not only “untypical,” according to Ina Bertrand, they had often been hidden from public view.89
When Jenni Meaney approached the ABC's Sydney camera department in late 1979 hoping to get a job as a camera assistant, she had experience working on student films and had attended a course for camera assistants at the Australian Film and Television School. To Meaney's surprise, the interview focused on her ability to carry the cameras and light cases, and whether she had ever been away overnight with film crews, rather than her level of experience with camera equipment. She asked her interviewers how many women were in the Sydney camera department:
I still remember, one of them was sitting and one was standing by the window with his arms crossed. Harry [Hall], it was, who I liked a lot when I got to know him, said “Well, that's the problem, there aren't any.” … It's like the whole interview completely changed because, somewhat naively, I hadn't really understood that women didn't work with cameras in broadcast, so it was quite funny.90
Although the managers assured Meaney that “we think that should change,” they also advised her that she would “be better off starting as an editing assistant.”91 Meaney insisted on filling out an application for camera assistant, however, and a few months later, in March 1980, she became the first woman employed as a camera assistant in the Sydney camera department of the ABC. While the majority of her male coworkers were supportive, a few treated her with hostility. The head of Drama, for example, vehemently opposed Meaney working in that department, saying, “I'm not having any fucking woman on my camera crew.” Meaney's supervisor advised her to go home while he argued on her behalf, and Meaney was permitted to start in Drama.92
The ABC's progression toward gender equality in camera departments moved slowly. In the 1980s few women were hired in camera positions, including Helen Barrow, who started at the ABC in Perth in 1980 as a camera assistant. Barrow moved to ABC Sydney as a camera assistant the following year, and was appointed as a full-time “cameraman” at the ABC in 1984. In 1982 the ABC's internal Equal Employment Opportunity Report found just two women versus forty-four men in the “cameraman” position at the ABC, based on a survey of 3,704 respondents.93
Occupational segregation affected women's prospects for career advancement, as well as their pay and working conditions. The AWBC alleged that male employees benefited from “built in career structures”: a man “could expect to progress from staging assistant up the ladder through to first assistant, director or producer,” but “the individual woman who seeks a career needs lots of determination as she must blaze her own trail.”94 The “female ghettoes” that developed in the media, wrote Margaret Gallagher, made legislative measures such as equal pay rulings almost impossible to enforce.95 Equal pay in Australia was introduced federally by the Commonwealth Arbitration Commission in two stages. The first decision, in 1969, only applied to women whose work could be said to be “of the same or like nature” to men; it did not apply to female-only occupations such as secretary, typist, tea attendant, or canteen “lady.” In 1972 the Full Bench of the Arbitration Commission redefined the principle of equal pay to mean “equal pay for work of equal value,” so that determinations of award rates were to be based on the value of the work only, regardless of gender connotations. Within the ABC, these principles could only easily be applied to “mixed” jobs, and did nothing to dismantle the sexual division of labor or to ensure equality of access to the same jobs, regardless of the sex of the applicant. This issue can be illustrated through close examination of another job the AWBC set out to change: the “female” position of producer's assistant.
PRODUCER'S ASSISTANT: A “FEMALE” POSITION
Producer's assistants (PAs) worked in both television and radio. In radio, the position was created around 1975, after management acknowledged that women in clerical or typing positions in radio program departments were unofficially performing production support duties beyond what was specified in their job descriptions. The new position was ostensibly created in order to give PAs the opportunity to develop their production skills, and be recognized as potential program makers rather than simply support staff. In 1980 all radio PAs were female, and were recruited from the clerical and typing ranks of the ABC.96
Despite the new position being reclassified as a production rather than support role, the exploitation of PAs continued. In their submission to the ABC inquiry in 1980, a group of PAs in ABC radio argued that despite being “fully expected to be able to carry out production tasks with a high level of creative and technical competence, [PAs] are also expected to remain true to their ‘supportive’ roles of secretary and typist,” with limited opportunity for career advancement:
Why are PAs who have proven their ability by working their way up through the clerical ranks of the ABC into responsible production positions being blocked when they dare to demand proper reward for their work? Why does the old attitude of “once a typist, always a typist” still prevail throughout the ABC when it has so often been proven false?97
The limited access to appropriate training led in 1979 to the radio PA subgroup devising their own substantial training course in conjunction with the AWBC and the ABC Training School.98 Compounding these issues, opportunities for career advancement were extremely limited, particularly to production officer or other higher-status production positions, even though about half the PAs working in radio in 1980 had tertiary (post–high school) qualifications or were currently studying, and about the same number had already produced programs. The PAs' submission to the Committee of Review argued that “many PAs have come to regard their jobs as ‘deadend jobs.’ Most have reached the maximum point in the salary range by the time they are 30, if not before.”99
In television, PAs were formerly known as script assistants. Jo Upham, who was a PA in television in the ABC in the late 1970s, recalled that there was a certain amount of status attached to the position, because it at least provided some professional recognition of skills. Being a PA “was an opportunity to get out of the typing pool, into production, into creative work, but always still knowing your place.” Upham speculated that the reason PAs were always women was partly because of the position's unspecified “other associated duties,” which men would not be asked to do: “You had to go and pick up the laundry. Go out and buy lunch for someone. You could be asked to do anything, virtually.”100 The TaFEO report recommended that management redefine “‘other associated duties’ to exclude those which are specifically required of women.”101
As the Women in the ABC report pointed out, the 1972 equal pay decision had no bearing on positions such as producer's assistant because it was “female” job without an “equivalent male yardstick” to measure against. The report commented that PAs had lower status than other types of television production support roles that were normally filled by men, such as floor manager. PAs were “perched in the middle of the salary range for floor managers (assistant directors), and their upper salary limit is equivalent to the lower salary limit for film editors and cinecamera ‘men.’”102 The TV PAs had been requesting salary parity with floor managers since 1973, on the basis that the two positions required a similar level of responsibility. ABC management rejected the claim on the basis that only the assistant director could be considered a trainee producer, and that script assistants and producer's assistants did not possess the “attitudes, aptitudes and qualifications of temperament that made a good producer.”103 Only rarely were producer's assistants and script assistants able to advance to the position of producer, a fact that ABC management acknowledged was probably partly due to “traditional attitudes towards female employment.”104
In addition to these major interventions, the AWBC also provided information and support for women at the ABC coping with workplace changes or possible job losses—often those in lower-status positions or non-permanently employed. These actions included agitating for news operations assistants, who faced computerization of their area in 1977, and registering concern with the ABC staff union over the impact on female staff of planned retrenchments in 1976. The AWBC expressed concerned about the “apparent assumption that the 40 women (clerk/typists) who have worked for the ABC on a casual basis (some more than 5 years) would be considered more easily expendable than other staff.”105
The AWBC was also influential in establishing an ABC childcare center. As Julie Rigg recalled, the TaFEO report made a recommendation about the provision of childcare facilities, but “the report was buried, and it didn't get anywhere.”106 Feminists on the executive committee of the New South Wales branch of the ABC Staff Association (the staff union) lobbied for two Staff Association–owned terraces in Darlinghurst to be used for a childcare center, and with the support of some male colleagues in the Staff Association, the proposal was approved. The twenty-four-hour community childcare center began operating in 1982.107
In 1977 the AWBC successfully lobbied for a new position of task force coordinator (later known as equal opportunity officer), to be located within the Women's Unit. In 1982 the internal Equal Employment Opportunity Report, based on a survey of 3,820 of the ABC's 6,000-strong staff, demonstrated the lack of progress for women employees since the TaFEO report of five years earlier. The equal opportunity officer, Elsa Atkin, concluded that women were significantly under-represented in nine job categories, including cameraperson, film editor, sound recordist, technical, senior officer, and broadcast engineering officer. “The data,” wrote Atkin, “suggests considerable streaming of male and female staff into specific job categories. … The disparities in many instances are so large they cannot be accounted for by abilities and qualifications alone, and may be due to a considerable legacy of discrimination by sex.”108
In the broader Australian Public Service in the early 1980s, women continued to be channeled into positions that provided little or no training in the skills required for leadership roles, and were not being provided with “the sort of challenges and opportunities that encourage ambition and commitment to a career.” The reasons for this, argued Desley Deacon at the time, “lie in the legacy of almost a century of segregation of men's and women's work within the [APS], reinforced of course by the high degree of segregation which has continued unchanged in the workforce as a whole.”109
The early 1980s was also a difficult period for the Women's Unit and The Coming Out Show, due to a more conservative ABC board of commissioners, a conservative chair Dame Leonie Kramer (appointed in 1981), and a small but vocal conservative lobby group, Women Who Want to be Women (WWWW), who objected to the AWBC's feminist focus and wanted the program abolished.110 In a 1984 self-appraisal ten years after its formation, the AWBC claimed that it had contributed to “attitudinal change towards women's capabilities at all levels in the ABC” through women working on The Coming Out Show alongside male technical staff, acting in supervisory roles in studio production, and liaising with senior staff across departments, thereby demonstrating how women and men could work together at all levels of the organization.111 On the other hand, the AWBC regretted the lack of progress in relation to women's employment opportunities:
i) women in production areas such as Producers Assistants and Production Secretaries still do not have the opportunity for advancement through a career structure. ii) women in administrative areas do not have a career structure iii) training and employment opportunities in technical areas in TV and Radio are not sufficient.112
A small AWBC television production unit, established in 1975 in ABC Television, produced short “fillers” about women during 1975 to mark International Women's Year, and had initial success with the provision of training courses, but did not survive into the 1980s.113
In 1989 the AWBC made a controversial political decision to reserve one of the coordinator positions for an indigenous or non-Anglo woman from outside the ABC.114 For the successful candidate, Nicola Joseph, an Arab woman with experience in community radio, the Women's Unit provided “a safe place to enter” the ABC, which was still “very white” in 1990.115 Joseph located the “politics of difference” within broader feminist debates about how to better represent the specific concerns and experiences of culturally diverse women, but five years later, in 1995, she commented that neither the women's movement nor the ABC appeared to be strongly committed to recognition of cultural diversity.116
What began as a “bold experiment” in 1975 for International Women's Year endured for more than twenty years: the AWBC was dissolved by 1995, and the radio program, which had been renamed Women Out Loud, was axed in 1998, twenty-three years after it launched as The Coming Out Ready or Not Show. It appears that management felt that the AWBC's aims of gender equality within the organization had been achieved, and that other programs on the network were taking up issues that had previously only been aired on The Coming Out Show.117 Feminist activist and cofounder of the Women's Electoral Lobby Beatrice Faust judged the AWBC as “the most consistently successful of the women's co-operatives that arose from second-wave feminism.”118 Julie Rigg believes that the AWBC changed the culture within the ABC, so that people “got used to women broadcasters.”119 Because of The Coming Out Show's on-the-job training, many more women gained broadcasting experience and hence were more likely to get production jobs. Influential women such as investigative journalist Liz Jackson, community radio executive Nicola Joseph, current affairs executive producer Gail Boserio, and Radio Australia senior executive Sue Slamen all benefited from what historian Ken Inglis called “that nursery for women broadcasters.”120
The AWBC viewed The Coming Out Show as “an important voice for women at a time of advancement of women and a vital ‘vehicle for reporting about and to the female public’ in the context of ‘media monopolies.’”121,The Coming Out Show was groundbreaking for providing an intersectional perspective on feminism, for example through Nicola Joseph's series on Arabic feminists, or a live interview between Aboriginal women activists and influential American feminist bell hooks.122 It also displayed a strong feminist historical consciousness, and broadcast numerous programs exploring the development of the Australian women's movement.123 Through bringing previously “fringe” topics into the public realm, wrote Inglis, it “broadened the agenda of other ABC programs and the media at large.”124 The AWBC is an example of a successful, unique, and enduring grassroots feminist organization that provided an important public space to hear the diversity of women's experiences and voices, and enabled the production of media content by women, for women. It also intervened in less visible ways, to challenge and dismantle structural inequalities and sexual discrimination from within the Australian Broadcasting Commission.